Poetic License: US Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey

Trethewey has known prejudice, violence, and loss. Now US poet laureate, she triumphs through the power of words.
Trethewey’s mother was black, her father white: “When I was born, there were still states with anti-miscegenation laws.” Photograph by Stephen Voss.

In 1965, the year Lyndon Johnson was sworn in for his second
term as President, Malcolm X was assassinated, and Alabama state troopers
beat 600 civil-rights workers so brutally that the protest was dubbed
Bloody Sunday, Natasha Trethewey’s black mother, Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough,
and her white father, Eric Trethewey, traveled to Ohio to get married.
After the wedding, they returned to Turnbough’s native Mississippi, where
their marriage was illegal under state law. Natasha Trethewey was born a
year later. She writes about the wedding in her poem
“Miscegenation”:

They crossed the river into Cincinnati, a city whose
name

begins with a sound like sin, the sound of
wrong—
mis in Mississippi.

More than four decades later, Trethewey, 47, sits in a corner
office in the Library of Congress, with windows overlooking the Capitol
and Mall. Soft-spoken and poised, she seems at home in the elegant room,
furnished with velvet chairs and a 19th-century writing desk barely big
enough to hold a laptop.

Last summer, Trethewey was appointed the 19th US poet laureate,
making her the first Southerner in that office since Robert Penn Warren
was named in 1986 and the first African-American since Rita Dove 20 years
ago. It’s a remarkable achievement for a midcareer poet—Trethewey thought
the call from the library was a prank—though she already has a résumé full
of honors, including, on top of Guggenheim and National Endowment for the
Arts fellowships, a 2007 Pulitzer Prize.

As poet laureate, Trethewey is one of the most prominent people
working in the field today, with the responsibility of promoting poetry
nationwide. During the first half of her one-year term, she gave readings
and spoke to students across the country. As of January, she’s the first
laureate to take up residence in Washington, spending the next few months
working at the library’s Poetry and Literature Center. The timing, she
acknowledges, is apt, given that a biracial President is living just a
couple of miles away: “When he was born and when I was born, there were
still states that had anti-miscegenation laws, and that wasn’t that long
ago.”

• • •

Trethewey’s appointment coincides with the 75th anniversary of
the Library of Congress’s Poetry and Literature Center, at a time when
poets are making increasing efforts to define their genre as relevant to
people who have never experienced it outside a classroom. Rob Casper, head
of the program since 2011, has tripled the library’s poetry programs and
events. “I’m always struck anew by how literate and engaged the community
in the DC area is,” Casper says. “When we first spoke with Natasha, she
began by asking if she could spend more time here, and it dovetailed
perfectly with our efforts to bring poets and writers in and offer the
community the chance to know them.”

Librarian of Congress James Billington first encountered
Trethewey at the National Book Festival in 2004. “I was enormously
impressed with not just the quality but the stature and beauty of her
presentation,” he says. “It was a reminder that poetry is fundamentally
meant to be recited, to be shared.”

Trethewey describes her job as being a “cheerleader” for the
genre: “People turn to poetry in tumultuous times. A lot of poems were
written after 9/11 because people were trying to find a vessel—a way to
speak the unspeakable. If people came to that idea more, they’d see that
poetry is not only a place to grieve but also to celebrate joy, births,
marriages, and even the ordinariness of the day.”

• • •

Trethewey knows grief first-hand—she describes it in poems as
“space emptied by loss” and “the constant forsaking” of losing a loved
one. When she was 19 and a freshman at the University of Georgia, her
mother was murdered by her second husband, Joel Grimmette, whom she’d
divorced the year before. Says Trethewey: “It seemed to me that poetry was
the only way to try to deal with that sense of loss.”

After her mother’s death, Trethewey started writing poems, but
she was too afraid to show them to her college professor: “She would have
had to tell me how bad they were, and I already knew.”

She shelved poetry for a few years, finishing her English
degree and getting an MA from Hollins University and an MFA from the
University of Massachusetts Amherst: “I thought I was going to be a
fiction writer.”

One day during grad school, a friend dared her to write a poem.
Trethewey bet him that she couldn’t but then found that she could—and that
the resulting poem wasn’t all that bad. She realized she just hadn’t read
enough poetry to know how to write it.

While at UMass Amherst in the mid-’90s, Trethewey joined the
Dark Room Collective, a group of African-American writers founded by
Thomas Sayers Ellis and Sharan Strange, then Harvard students. Established
as a reading series, the collective became a breeding ground for a
generation of black poets, including Kevin Young (who went on to be a
National Book Award finalist), Major Jackson (author of three collections
and recipient of a Pew Fellowship), and Tracy K. Smith (a Pulitzer winner
last year). In 1996, the New Yorker said the group “could turn
well out to be as important to American letters as the Harlem
Renaissance.”

• • •

In 2000, Trethewey published her first collection, Domestic
Work
. It was selected by Rita Dove for the Cave Canem Poetry
Prize—awarded to “exceptional manuscripts by African American poets”—and
received the 2001 Lillian Smith Award for Poetry. Inspired in part by the
experiences of her maternal grandmother and photographs of black domestic
workers before the civil-rights era, the book marked the start of
Trethewey’s exploration of history through family.

Her second collection, Bellocq’s Ophelia, published in
2002, drew inspiration from E.J. Bellocq’s photographs of prostitutes in
New Orleans’s Storyville district in the early 1900s. The heroine,
Ophelia, is, as the book puts it, “a very white-skinned black woman
mulatto, quadroon, or octoroon” who knows that however she poses for the
photographer in her room, “this photograph we make / will bear the stamp
of his name, not mine.” The book received wide acclaim, winning the
Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award and being named a notable
book of the year by the American Library Association.

In 2001, Trethewey joined the faculty of Atlanta’s Emory
University, working in the same city where her mother died and living
within walking distance of the courthouse where her stepfather was given
two life sentences for the murder. “I never planned to come back here,”
she said in 2008, “but a job’s a job. . . . I think it was impossible for
me not to return.”

Photograph by Stephen Voss.

She channeled the feelings that emerged from that return into
2006’s Native Guard, the Pulitzer-winning collection that
explored Trethewey’s heritage, her mother’s death, and the black
Mississippi regiment that fought for the Union during the Civil War. If
the book’s origins were humble—Trethewey told the New York Times
she received “a regular poetry kind of advance for it, around $2,000”—it
became the work that established her as a major figure in the
field.

In the book’s first section, Trethewey mines her sorrow
following her mother’s death. She writes in “Myth”:

I was asleep while you were dying It’s as if you slipped
through some rift, a hollow I make between my slumber and my
waking.

Much of Native Guard was researched at the Library of
Congress, where Trethewey would look through a list of holdings in the
Madison Building, ask for boxes containing documents from the Civil War,
then spend afternoons reading letters from soldiers.

The last part of Native Guard explores memories from
Trethewey’s childhood. When she was very young, the Ku Klux Klan burned a
cross on her parents’ lawn, an act Trethewey talks about in her poem
“Incident,” describing the gathered men as “white as angels in their
gowns.”

One Christmas, her parents bought her a blond ballerina doll
with a matching outfit for herself. “. . . I didn’t know to ask,” she
writes in “Blond,” “nor that it mattered, / if there’d been a brown
version. . . .”

After her parents divorced when she was six, she divided her
time between living in Atlanta with her African-American mother, a social
worker, and summers with her white father, who was studying for a
doctorate at Tulane in New Orleans. Trethewey began to experience how
differently she was treated depending on the parent she was with. In
“Blond,” she says that “. . . with my skin color, / like a good tan—an
even mix of my parents’—I could have passed for white.”

But it was spending time with her father that gave her a sense
of what it might be like to be a writer: “We’d spend the morning in the
stacks at the library, and then in the afternoon he and his friends would
go running in the park and I’d get on my bike and go with them. Then we’d
go back to someone’s porch and they’d have a nightcap and talk about
things that sounded so philosophical and interesting, and they’d recite
poems and argue. I thought: That’s the life I want.”

Her father, now a professor of poetry at Hollins, encouraged
her interests in literature at an early age, showing her Theodore
Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz,” a poem describing a boy dancing with his
tipsy father while his mother looks on disapprovingly. “I wrote one of my
first poems in traditional form after reading that,” she says. “It’s still
one that’s my favorite to recite.”

• • •

Photograph: Ice Storm, 1971

Why the rough edge of beauty? Why
the tired face of a woman, suffering,
made luminous by the camera’s eye?

Or the storm that drives us inside
for days, power lines down, food rotting
in the refrigerator, while outside

the landscape glistens beneath a glaze
of ice? Why remember anything
but the wonder of those few days,

the iced trees, each leaf in its glassy case?
The picture we took that first morning,
the front yard a beautiful, strange place—

why on the back has someone made a list
of our names, the date, the event: nothing
of what’s inside—mother, stepfather’s fist?

From “Native Guard,” copyright © 2006 by Natasha Trethewey.
Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

An equally deft writer of prose, Trethewey is working on a
memoir—the subject of what the New York Times called a “heated
auction.” In 2010, she published a nonfiction book called Beyond
Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast,
which deals with
her complex feelings about her home state as well as the impact of her
mother’s death on her half brother, Joel. After his father, who shares his
name, was arrested, ten-year-old Joel went to live with his grandmother.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, with work almost impossible to
find, Joel—then in his thirties—agreed to transport cocaine for an
acquaintance and was sent to jail, the same year Trethewey won her
Pulitzer. (He was released in 2009.)

The memoir, Trethewey says, will explore her mother’s life and
the side of her she never knew: “I didn’t get to know her as a human being
beyond Mom. I was just a freshman in college [when she died], and the
relationship we had where I was a kid and she was a parent hadn’t evolved
into knowing her as a person. I’d like to know her like that.”

At the core of her research is a box of documents, including
letters her mother sent to her father when they started dating in the
’60s, others they exchanged after the divorce, photographs, and the police
report filed after her death, which included the contents of her
briefcase. “There was a 13-page narrative she’d started writing about her
life, about her difficult [second] marriage, and about her decision to try
to escape it,” Trethewey says. “That decision in many ways was a dangerous
one. And yet I knew she did it because of me.”

Trethewey says writing about her childhood, her mother, and the
tragedy of losing her helps her process it all: “If I’m writing about my
childhood, I’m writing about a moment in which I was not in control. But
when I write it, because I’m shaping events and crafting the language, I
do have control and it transforms it.”

• • •

Just as native guard is about her mother, Thrall,
published last year, is about her father. Trethewey describes it as much
harder to write because her father is still alive and the poems concern an
ongoing relationship: “Because we’re poets, our conversation is both
private and public. And because of what I had to say, it seemed that the
poems were the best way, the most elegant way, to talk about what’s
difficult between us.”

In “Enlightenment,” Trethewey writes of returning to Thomas
Jefferson’s Monticello with her father, years after the pair visited when
she was young:

Imagine stepping back into the past,

our guide tells us then—and I can’t
resist

whispering to my father: This is where

we split up. I’ll head around to the back.

When he laughs, I know he’s grateful.

I’ve made a joke of it, this history

that links us—white father, black
daughter—

even as it renders us other to each
other.

Asked what it means to her to be US poet laureate, Trethewey
pauses, then says, “It’s a bigger honor than I can describe,” her eyes
filling with tears. Sworn to secrecy until the news was made public, she
persuaded her father to fly to Atlanta the day of the announcement and
broke the news as she was driving him to a restaurant. “He hugged me so
hard,” she says. “I know that he’s very proud. It feels like a culmination
of everything he told me I could do when I was a little girl.”

• • •

Among the many firsts on Trethewey’s résumé is that she’s the
first poet to serve as national and state poet laureate simultaneously.
Governor Haley Barbour appointed her in her native Mississippi shortly
before he left office.

It’s hard to imagine someone having a more layered relationship
with her home state. “It is my homeland and my native land,” she told an
audience at Emory last year. “I love the South because it is
mine.”

The final lines of the last poem in Native Guard read:
“. . . I return / to Mississippi, state that made a crime / of me—mulatto,
half-breed—native / in my native land, this place they’ll bury
me.”

And yet, looking out across the Mall at the monuments paying
tribute to American heroes, Trethewey seems to feel at home in Washington
as well. “Being in the presence of history and a place so rooted in the
national imagination—it’s so interesting to me,” she says. “I like it very
much. I think I could live here.”

This article appears in the February 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.

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